British troops in 5-day chase of Taliban
Tim Albone, Lashkar Gah
IN the wild, unforgiving terrain of southern Afghanistan, over which people have fought for centuries, the latest players on the battlefield are crack British troops in light, manoeuvrable Land Rovers.
The Pathfinders, an elite unit of 16 Air Assault Brigade, spent five days on a gruelling pursuit of Taliban militants across this rugged landscape, it emerged yesterday. The hunt culminated in their first engagement with the Taliban since 3,300 British troops arrived in Helmand province.
Violence in the region has intensified in recent weeks as the poppy harvest — the mainstay of the local economy and the scourge of heroin-importing countries — comes to an end and farmers sympathetic to the Taliban resume the battle against government forces and the “foreign invaders”.
In the past fortnight more than 400 people, most of them anti-government militants, have been killed. The casualty rate reflects the reckless streak of the Taliban whose specialities, beyond intimidating the local population into giving them food and shelter, are suicide attacks and roadside ambushes.
The Pathfinders, who saw action recently in Sierra Leone, are also a formidable bunch. Their physical selection is on a par with that of the SAS.
“They are very, very tough,” a military expert said. “They are the hand-picked elite. They undergo long forced marches.” They are also known for the “halo”, or “high altitude low opening” parachute jump.
None of this stops them from feeling somewhat vulnerable in WMIK Land Rovers — specially adapted armed vehicles without roofs or doors. Yet there is no better vehicle for this difficult terrain, say the Pathfinders, who prefer speed to armour.
Their dash through the mountains began on May 17, when they were unexpectedly summoned to the rescue.
A poorly trained police force of 100 in the town of Musa Qala had been cornered by a much greater force of Taliban fighters. “They said there were 500 Taliban, but I am not sure how accurate that is,” said a British source. Already 13 policemen had been shot dead. They needed help, and quickly.
Travelling down roads that are often little more than rutted gravel tracks, it was a white-knuckle ride. Often the dried out riverbeds or wadis made an easier route. The threat of ambush slowed things further: despite being far more rigorously trained than the Taliban, the British soldiers were well aware that their enemy knew the terrain a lot better. The 30 Pathfinders also knew they were greatly outnumbered.
By dawn on Friday, May 19, they were perched high above Musa Qala with a good view of policemen storming out of the town in Toyota pick-up trucks — the standard vehicle for Afghan fighters, whichever side they are fighting on.
The tables had turned. Driven by a desire to avenge their heavy casualties and aided by reinforcements from other parts of the province, the police had seized the advantage. A long line of their vehicles was snaking up the valley in pursuit of the Taliban.
The British tagged on to the end of this extraordinary convoy. They were soon deep in enemy territory, a land where very few, if any, coalition troops had ever set foot. This was where Mullah Omar, the fugitive one-eyed Taliban leader, was reported to have fled after American military might put paid to his eccentric medieval regime in late 2001.
With temperatures pushing 50C and the threat of ambush growing ever greater, it became an even more uncomfortable journey.
When the Pathfinders reached the outskirts of a town called Baghran in the mountainous far north of the province on Saturday the sound of gunfire greeted them: the police had resumed contact with Taliban fighters on the fringes of the town. For the moment, however, they seemed unwilling to push forward.
To sit down with these men and deal with them as the representatives of an enlightened and civilized people is to deride ones own dignity and to invite the disaster of their treachery - General Matthew Ridgway
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